NY gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin wants to fire Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg. It’s not that easy.

 NY gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin wants to fire Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg.  It's not that easy.

Historical lessons

There have been instances where a governor has south a district attorney over the handling of a specific case. In 1996, the court ruled in favor of then-Gov. George Pataki who pulled a case involving the murder of a New York City police officer from then-Bronx District Robert Johnson over his refusal to pursue the death penalty. (The state’s highest court deemed the death penalty unconstitutional in 2004.)

“The governor has the power, usually working with the attorney general to supersede a DA in an individual case or category of cases,” Briffault said.

When it comes to removing the person from office, Briffault said, the state constitution does grant the governor “ultimate authority” but that would involve showing the DA had fallen down on the job across the board, “rather than maybe had a shortcoming in a particular category of cases.”

There is little historical precedent for a governor to fully remove a district attorney from office.

In 1932, then-Gov. Franklin Roosevelt removed a sheriff from New York County in connection to broader, ongoing corruption investigations into Tammany Hall, the powerful New York City Democratic political organization.

(Later that same year, Tammany-aligned Mayor James Walker resigned in the face of potential removal hearings.)

Threats to democracy?

Despite there being a mechanism for removal, elected officials warn that the move threatens to threaten the will of Manhattan voters.

Assembly member Al Taylor, who represents the 71st Assembly District in Upper Manhattan, said Zeldin’s pledge made him question his commitment to democracy. Taylor, who was and remains a Bragg supporter, said he was also concerned about an attack on Bragg personally.

“I don’t want this to be a black and white conversation, but I find it strange that he’s kind of like, you know, who can I make a poster boy to beat up?” Taylor said.

Good government leaders insist it’s better to campaign against an official when they face the end of their term as opposed to threatening to remove them.

“It’s a radically undemocratic approach in terms of its policy and the message it sends,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, who also stressed that there was a lengthy procedure that would need to take place before anyone was removed from office.

She also stressed how a threat like this fits into a pattern of people seeking to undermine the will of voters, as in 2020 when 147 House members including Zeldin refused to certify the results of the presidential election.

“I think it is part and parcel of the same approach, which seeks to undercut if not actively destroy our democracy and to ignore the will of the voters,” said Lerner. “It’s very alarming.”

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